Bitcoin goes to the dentist
February 05, 2018
Virtual currency may seem like a concept reserved for tech startups or Silicon Valley investors, but some dentists around the U.S. have started accepting it as payments from patients.
Among them is Dr. George Carr in Tempe, Arizona, who has accepted bitcoin, and other virtual currencies such as Litecoin, Dash and Ethereum since August.
"Digital currency is our future," Dr. Carr told the ADA News.
Those uninitiated in the world of virtual currency may be scratching their heads. Virtual currency, cryptocurrency, or as the Internal Revenue Service defines it, "a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value," has been in the news especially since December, when the value of one bitcoin, perhaps the most well-known virtual currency, peaked at $19,500 U.S. dollars.
Bitcoin operates like real currency and can be exchanged into U.S. dollars, euros or other real currencies using online exchanges, according to the IRS in its tax documents for digital currency. Virtual currency is treated as property for federal tax purposes, according to the IRS.
For Dr. Carr, it was just last year that his close friend, who operates a start-up that helps businesses find ways to monetize web traffic, introduced him to cryptocurrencies. After learning more about it, Dr. Carr said accepting it as payment from patients felt like a no-brainer.
Patients asked for it, he said, and it makes good business sense since it means avoiding three percent credit card transaction fees.
"Fewer merchant fees with a happy patient is definitely a win-win in my book," said Dr. Carr.
Dr. Carr, who graduated in 2001 from the University of Washington School of Dentistry, can add his practice to a long and growing list of businesses that accept bitcoin as payment, such as the online retailer Overstock.com
, Microsoft and some franchises of Subway sandwich shops. In January, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made headlines when he announced that the NBA team would accept bitcoin, perhaps beginning next season.
Dr. Craig Ratner, chair of the ADA Council on Dental Practice, said virtual currencies is a topic on the council's radar. He said he's been researching the concept, but believes only a handful of dental practices nationwide are accepting it.
"It's so volatile, and for the average dental practice to be able to turn around and use bitcoin to purchase other goods and services is difficult at this point," Dr. Ratner said.
For his part, Dr. Ratner said he does not accept bitcoin at his New York City practice and has not had any patients ask to use it. Still, he said the council would monitor the trend and work to issue guidance to members if warranted.
To be sure, Dr. Ratner said he sees the potential value of working with virtual currencies, including Dr. Carr's point about avoiding credit card transaction fees. Furthermore, bitcoin transactions are not reversible, so the payments give the dental professional a little more "protection," Dr. Ratner said, when having to deal with payment reimbursements to patients. Bitcoin's potential to increase in value can also be seen as an asset, he said.
Still, at one point in January, bitcoin's value sunk to below $10,000 from its $19,500 high in December.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding virtual currency, Dr. Ratner encourages dental professionals interested in it to do some research first.
"Understand how risky the market is, especially right now," Dr. Ratner said, adding users should be well-versed in digital wallets before jumping in to protect their assets.
For those who decide they're ready to jump in the virtual currency pool, there's not much work to do to begin.
Dr. Ben Amini, a San Francisco dentist along with in-house orthodontist Dr. Amanda Cheng, began accepting bitcoin earlier this year at their practice, Citident
. He said it took him about 10 minutes to open a digital wallet, through a platform such as Coinbase.com
, which is essentially the sole prerequisite to acquiring bitcoin.
Accepting bitcoin as payment is as easy as scanning a QR code attached to a payer's account via their smartphone, Dr. Amini said. But anyone, not just merchants, can purchase bitcoin at any time through an online bitcoin broker, such as Coinbase.com
Dr. Amini, 49, said the risk-averse can always exchange any digital funds they acquire into U.S. dollars right away by using an exchange (again, Coinbase.com can be used for this), he told ADA News, which is what he does when patients pay him with it.
"I believe in cutting-edge technology when it comes to treating our patients in a clinical setting, and that's what we offer at CitiDent," said Dr. Amini. "Bitcoin fits the model in a similar perspective. It is the latest concept in how people can pay for goods and services and we want to offer that to our patients."
While accepting bitcoin makes sense for his practice, which is located near Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Financial District, it may not make sense for everyone to be an early adopter, Dr. Amini said.
"I've seen the days where it was mostly cash and credit cards exchanging hands, but these millennials, they hate cash and they don't touch it," he said. "The concept of cryptocurrency is not going to go away."
Dr. Carr said he agrees that it's an inevitable part of the future, but emphasized that questions remain, such as which virtual currencies will reign supreme, whether they will be decentralized and how the government may step in to regulate it.
"No one really knows who the winners will be," said Dr. Carr. "And if someone tells you they know for sure, I would just laugh at them, roll my eyes, and then ask them what next week's winning lotto numbers will be as well."